Am I a Racist?

I wipe the fog from the bathroom mirror and look at my white body. My skin is so white I can see the blue veins, like a strange spider web on my stomach and chest and neck. This is the only body I’ve ever known, handed down through generations of Northern European mothers.

I remember the stories my mother used to tell, how as children, she and her little friend would sneak down to the stream behind their Utah homes. They would cover their bodies in thick, dark mud and pretend to be negroes, something they had never seen. Then the little girls would lay down in the stream and let the mud wash off, revealing again their white little bodies.

Later, as a nurse, my mom saw a black man for the first time. He was her patient and she diligently cared for him. She washed his skin and almost rubbed him raw because she couldn’t tell if he was clean. “Things were different then,” she told me, “when people were racist.”

My childhood was different, growing up outside of Los Angeles. Everywhere I looked there were people of every color, speaking every language you could imagine. We lived in a white neighborhood and went to a white church, but there were other colors, always there, in the periphery of my memory. I do remember the riots, on the news, when I was eight. I didn’t understand, but I was afraid of those men.  

I grew up as a millennial, the generation that values diversity, tolerance, and social justice. As a group, we’re not racist anymore, right? We studied Dr. King in our college classes. We elected a black president and are appalled when our grandmothers loudly suggest that President Obama is “nigger-rich.” We claim we don’t see color and nod when our partners say they’ve never seen racism.   

A newly born feminist, I read the words women of color have written because I know so few in real life. Terrified of being labeled a white feminist, I try to listen, try to understand a world that I have lived in all my life and yet have never known. I learn words like “intersectionality” and “systems of oppression.”

As the supervisor of a racially diverse team, my whiteness is always on my mind. When an employee accuses me of policing her tone, I try to calmly explain that three other women have come to me crying because of her rude words. She tells me they just can’t handle a strong black woman in the office. I don’t tell her the hours I have spent trying to decide how to handle this because I’m afraid of her myself.    

I drive home and I listen to white voices on the radio tell me about more riots, more protests, angry black men and women like the ones I remember from my youth. Another black man. Another white officer. My mind churns with names and places that I try to keep straight: Ferguson, Tamir, Sandra, Mother Emanuel. I come home to my white neighborhood, my white church, and my white family and all of that seems so far away.

But, I know that for so many of those who I claim are brothers and sisters, these events are not far away. And I don’t know what to do. So for one Sunday we take a break from our church, to sit in unfamiliar pews and listen to a black woman teach us what she learned from Dr. King.

Yesterday my six year old son, with the same blue-white skin and my own bright blue eyes staring back at me, told me how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made everything fair. “He was a great man, Mom. His father taught him that things should be fair and when he grew up he was brave and he made it all fair. He got all the black people to stop riding the buses. Then the white people got angry and shot him.”  

As we listen to the words of "I have a dream," my son draws pictures of Dr. King with a dove on his shoulder, of black and white people eating at restaurants together and drinking from the same fountains. He searches his crayons for the right colors and carefully completes the caption, "Martin Loother Cing Made Peece."  

Then I take a deep breath and we talk about privilege. I just learned this word and it sounds strange on my tongue. I’m not really sure what it means, but I feel like it is important to say out loud. “We have privilege. We have a responsibility to listen to others who don’t have our privilege because they are the only ones who can tell us what that is like.”

In these few moments before I start my day, in the time before commutes, homework, laundry, and the never ending stream of things to do take over my thoughts, I pause. And the thought comes back, the one I always push away, tuck back in, and try to forget. A question, really, “Am I a racist?” For once I take it out and look at the question, turn it over in my mind. I don’t know the answer and I’m not sure how to find out.

But for now, I’m listening. I'm listening not only to the easy, soothing words of Dr. King that are passed around on meme after meme between my white friends, but also those that are hard for white ears to hear. I'm listening to the words of those today who feel like they are unheard.


My Year In Books, Part Two: Memoirs

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body
    By Martin Pistorius
    Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoir, Special Needs

Last January I listened to an episode on Invisibilia called, “The Locked In Man.” I was so fascinated by the true story of Martin Pistorius that I immediately purchased this book on my Kindle and started reading. Martin’s body and mind began to shut down when he was 12 years old. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him and eventually he entered a time when he has no memories. Then one day, he woke up. At least his mind did.  He could not control even the most basic functions like talking and spent years like that. Since he has written a book, I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that eventually he regained some functions.
This is a short but powerful and heart wrenching book about hope, despair, faith and what it means to be human. If you do nothing else, listen to the podcast episode I linked above!

If you do read the book be aware that some parts are difficult to read and not appropriate for children as they deal with abuse Martin experienced.   

Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption
    By Katie Davis
    Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoir, Africa, Christianity

I also heard about Katie Davis on a podcast, this time from her interview with Dave Ramsey, which you can listen to here. I was just blown away by her story of love and faith. Katie is younger than me, but I want to be like her one day.

When Katie was 18 years old she visited Uganda. The next summer she went back and never really came home. You see, Katie could hear God calling her to his work. Kisses from Katie follows her story as she figures out what it is that God wanted her to do in Uganda. Ultimately, it was to found an organization that sponsors the education of over 700 impoverished children, feeds 1,200 children daily and provides a vocational program to poor women so they can feed their own children and send them to school. Additionally, Katie has legally adopted 13 Ugandan children.
Her book is a powerful testament to what can happen when we follow God’s path for us without fear. Katie said, “People tell me I am brave. People tell me I am strong. People tell me good job. Well here is the truth of it. I am really not that brave, I am not really that strong, and I am not doing anything spectacular. I am just doing what God called me to do as a follower of Him. Feed His sheep, do unto the least of His people.”

You can visit her organization, Amazima Ministries, and learn more.

First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers
    By Loung Ung
    Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Asia

Many of the books I read last year were difficult to read. This was one of the most difficult. Loung Ung was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge forced her family out of their home in Phnom Penh and into the countryside. In the bloody civil war, genocide and starvation  that followed about 2 out of every 7 Cambodians died. In this book Ung details how she survived and eventually escaped Cambodia. Read it with a box of tissues. And don’t try to read it on the train to work like I did. Stories like this one are important so we remember and never forget the horror that humans can inflict on one another and the power of the spirit to rise above horror.

I’m looking forward to the Netflix adaption of this book which will be directed by Angelina Jolie and is set to be released later this year.

Also, please check out Girl Rising, another project Loung Ung is involved in. She helped write some of the script for the film of the same name, Girl Rising. You can see the trailer and get involved here.  


My Year In Books, Part One: I'm a Mormon Girl

One of my goals in 2015 was to read more books. I am very happy to report that I finished a total of 18 books and read portions of many more. Considering I read maybe two or three books the previous year, I certainly achieved my goal. This was in large part due to a wonderful Christmas gift I received last year: a Kindle. This allowed me to read much more than I might have otherwise. It also allowed me to purchase many more books that I would have otherwise, leading to one of my New Year's resolutions this year: to not buy any books. I am committing to only reading books I already own or that I check out from the library. Hopefully this resolution will contribute to other goals of simplifying and staying in a budget without restricting my reading too much!   

Each book has become part of me and influenced me in some way and I also intended to write blog posts reviewing each of the books and my reactions, but that didn’t happen. I would still like to record the list and some of my thoughts. I will try to organize the books into broad categories. I hope you enjoy this year in review and decide to pick up some of these books!

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

    By Sarah Bessey
    Non-Fiction, Religion & Spirituality, Women’s Issues, Christianity

“Many of the seminal social issues of our time - poverty, lack of education, human trafficking, war and torture, domestic abuse - can track their way to our theology of, or beliefs about, women, which has its roots in what we believe about the nature, purposes, and character of God.”

Sarah Bessey's claim is simple, yet radical: Jesus was a feminist.

Sarah uses her own faith journey to explain who she learned to find Christ in what she calls "our walking around life." In that process she came to believe that her feminism stemmed from her faith, from Jesus' message. Much of what she said rang true in my Mormon upbringing as well. I believe in the equality of men and women, not as a reaction against my faith, but because of it.  

Sometimes people ask me why I feel the need to identify as a feminist. The word is divisive, especially in my faith tradition, where its use conjures up images of women who forsake or even attempt to tear down everything we hold dear. Why focus on women, if I claim that feminism means that men and women should have the same rights and opportunities? Sarah Bessey’s answer is a beautiful encapsulation of my strong feelings about using that word and why I feel the need to couple it with my faith and proclaim that I’m a Mormon Feminist.  

“One needn't identify as a feminist to participate in the redemptive movement of God for women in the world, The gospel is more than enough. Of course it is! But as long as I know how important maternal health is to Haiti's future, and as long as I know that women are being abused and raped, as long as I know girls are being denied life itself through selective abortion, abandonment, and abuse, as long as brave little girls in Afghanistan are attacked with acid for the crime of going to school, and until being a Christian is synonymous with doing something about these things, you can also call me a feminist.”    

Sarah Bessey’s words read like a gloriously joyful song, sung with arms and heart wide open. I was completely drawn in, overwhelmed with Jesus’ grace and love. I felt myself filling up with desire to serve him, not out of fear of any punishment or hope of any reward, but just as the natural consequence of being lavished with so much love. This is a book I plan to read again and again and allow Sarah’s words to bring me closer to my Savior and Friend.

Women At Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact

    By Neylan McBaine
    Non-Fiction, Religion & Spirituality, Women’s Issues, LDS

Deseret Book describes Women at Church as a “practical and faithful guide to improving the way men and women work together at church.” Neylan McBaine has the enviable talent of being able to see and understand why some people feel pain with the way the LDS church is administered while also being able to speak the language of the faithful, traditional membership. In the first half of the book, she explains why some women (and men) struggle with gender in the church. In the second half, she offers suggestions for relieving some of that pain. All of her suggestions are carefully chosen to work within the current guidelines in church handbooks, so leaders can feel comfortable using the ideas they feel inspired to implement.
There are some who don’t think it is our collective responsibility to try to help those who are struggling. There are others who want to call those they don’t agree with apostates or hypocrites. Neylan acknowledges the tense emotions that can come with discussion of gender issues and invites us to try to do more:

“Because we are working in the art of redemption, we all care very deeply. If we were simply trying to offer an amusing social outlet or after-school youth program, we might not care quite so much … But our relationship with the Church is a reflection of our relationship to our faith; although we might cognitively separate the two when it is convenient or needful, the reality is that the way we feel at church impacts the way we feel about our faith."

"Faith, at least the way Mormons approach it, is neither practiced nor cultivated in isolation, and the communal relationships and interactions are the road on which faith finds its way. Despite the fact that we already have dedicated and good-hearted leaders, don’t we want to make the Church experience even better if it is in our power to do so?”

I think everyone in positions of leadership in the LDS church should read this book. If you have ever wondered why some women don’t “feel equal,” you should read this book. If you have ever wondered what you can do to help women who struggle with our gender practices, you should read this book. It is a door-opener, a conversation-starter, and a bridge-builder. What this book is not is the end; it is only the beginning.

While I loved many parts of this book and think it fills a need in our community, I could not shake the feeling that there was more Neylan McBaine could have said, but that she was being very careful to not alienate those the position to make changes. I firmly believe that we (as a church) need more revelation, not more policies, direct from the source (God) concerning women in particular and gender in general. This book is a great stop-gap, a practical, on the ground manual for how to do things now to ease suffering while we are waiting for further light and knowledge.

For a more complete and thorough review, see “Women Exit Quietly,” at the Exponent blog.

The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith

    By Joanna Brooks
Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, LDS

“You see that? That big messy spiral of people, moving, trying to find God? I ask them, as the exodus unfolds once again on screen. That right there is Zion. Get there however you can.”

For a long time I hated Joanna Brooks. Really. I’m embarrassed about it now, but I did. In my mind she represented a threat to my nice, comfortable religious tradition. I remember a conversation with a friend where we just let loose how much we disliked and even pitied Joanna Brooks. She wasn’t really an insider, we told each other. She hasn’t been through the temple, how could she claim to be a voice for Mormonism? And if there were parts of our culture and tradition that were so painful for her, why didn’t she just leave? Why does she have to try to destroy what the rest of us love so dearly? If she really understood the divinity of womanhood …  

I owe Joanna Brooks a big fat apology. You see, just a few short months after that conversation, my shelf came crashing down. The shelf where I had stored polygamy and all it’s ugly implications, the “patriarchal order” of heaven, my hurt from being excluded from leadership, the promise I made to obey my husband, all the million microaggressions that come with being a woman in this church, and most of all, way there in the back, the empty hole in my soul where my Heavenly Mother wasn’t.

And then I understood what Joanna had been saying all along. I still waited over a year to read her book, refusing to listen to her podcasts or look at her blog. Then my book club announced that we would be reading Book of Mormon Girl.

I was hooked by the first page. I had been so wrong. What I read could have been my story in places. Joanna’s words perfectly captured the beauty and mystery of being raised Mormon. All the things I loved were there.

And the pain too. The confusion, the heartache, the loneliness, they were all there on the page. I found something else familiar there too, a determination and dedication that came with the evolution of faith.       

“I am not the same kind of Mormon girl I was when I was seven, eight, or eighteen years old.  I am not an orthodox Mormon woman like my mother.  I am an unorthodox Mormon woman with a fierce and hungry faith. ”   

I know what it is like to have a “fierce and hungry faith.” Like Joanna, I am not the same kind of Mormon I was. My faith, or what I thought of as my faith was consumed in a fire, until only the really truly permanent things were left. And so when people ask me, “If this or that causes you pain, why do you stay?” I stay, because in the end,

“(Mormonism) "it is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart." No one says any of these things.  But they should.”